Cultivating the Imagination in Children: You Can Create an Astonishing Magic When You Say the Right Thing at the Right Time in a Child's Life

Leadership, March-April 2004 | Go to article overview

Cultivating the Imagination in Children: You Can Create an Astonishing Magic When You Say the Right Thing at the Right Time in a Child's Life


There is a lot of evidence to say that the art of teaching is about remembering--not in the sense of memorization, but in the sense of the deep memory of what it means to be fully human. The Greeks named memory as the mother of the nine different forms of creativity--the nine muses. If teaching is about anything, it is about asking children to remember who they are and the greater context of whatever they are being taught.

I think it would be wonderfully refreshing to children to say "Listen, today we're all going to jump through this hoop together, but you know you're going to come across experiences in your life where what we do and what we say and what we explore today is going to be completely absurd and of no use to you at all--and we're still going to do it." I think children feel then they are being treated as if they know something--which they do. They know that the hoop of the day is not the whole story.

Teaching and learning are about never losing your innocence, because innocence is not a quality you cover over and replace with experience as the years go by, but a valuable faculty of seeing the world new every day. Naturally, you ask, "How do I do this with a mountain of papers to mark--with the state requirements, meetings and all the rest?" The answer is that it is very difficult. It's very difficult in any human life to do it.

The act of remembering who you are and what is essential, and then being able to communicate that essentiality in the midst of all of the dross and difficulty in life, has always been acknowledged as a triumph of individual human existence.

What would it be like to see teaching as the ability to cultivate the imagination in children--to create the biggest context possible for whatever they are being taught? For that cultivation to take place, a teacher has to make him-or-herself vulnerable to what is unknown. Because one of the truths of life is whatever frontier we are on it is just that--a frontier into a landscape and territory that is much larger than anything we can imagine.

I think it's a brilliant thing for a child to sense that adults are actually on the frontier of their own unknown. Not only that, but that they are there in a joyful way. They aren't feeling diminished because they don't have all the answers--they are actually looking to some horizon that is giving them a grand vista. Children can feel this in a palatable way.

Whatever draws you and is precious to you in your life is what you should be gazing upon almost every day. The lack of attention upon that--the lack of gaze, the lack of conversation, the lack of relationship with the star that is calling you--will bereave you of any sense of courage.

This poem is written for anyone who has to take a courageous step in life. …

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